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Agriculture Featured in Chesapeake Bay Watershed Protection and Restoration

May 13, 2010

This week, the Obama Administration unveiled a comprehensive strategy for dealing with nutrient and sediment pollution in Chesapeake Bay watersheds and issued guidance for federal land managers in the region for reducing nutrient and sediment pollution.   In addition, EPA announced a settlement in Fowler v. EPA, a case in which plaintiffs alleged that EPA had failed to comply with the Clean Water Act, the Administrative Procedures Act, and the Chesapeake Bay Agreements among the federal and Bay state governments for restoring and preserving the Chesapeake Bay’s water quality and living resources.

On Wednesday May 12, the Administration released its Strategy for Protecting and Restoring the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, which includes provisions for addressing agricultural pollution.   The Strategy was developed by a Federal Leadership Committee, established by Presidential Executive Order No. 13508 on May 11, 2009.   The Strategy calls for the establishment and expansion of conservation practices to control nutrient and sediment pollution on four million acres of agricultural land in the watershed by 2025.   In addition, it gives USDA the lead in developing a water pollution credit trading system that can include interstate trades involving agricultural offsets within the Bay’s watershed.

The Strategy, however, does not fully acknowledge the nutrient imbalance in many Chesapeake Bay watersheds caused in large part by the importation of feed grains for high density, confined poultry and livestock production.   Establishing agricultural conservation  practices may improve, but likely will not solve, the problem of excess nutrients in the region.   There is little attention in the Strategy for incentives for more diverse and balanced agriculture systems that could provide for a better balance of agricultural nutrients in the Bay’s watersheds.

As a companion to the Strategy, the Administration released a separate Guidance for Federal Land Management in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed that includes measures to be taken on federal land to reduce pollution.  The pollution control measures in the Guidance are described as the most cost-effective tools and practices, indicated by current scientific and technical literature to be the most state-of-the-art approaches to reduce water pollution from nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment.

Unfortunately, the measures to control agricultural phosphorus (P) in the Guidance fall short of effectively limiting phosphorus from land applied livestock manure and poultry litter.  The Guidance provides that manure or even commercial fertilizer containing P may be applied on soil that is already up to twenty percent (20%) saturated with P.   This is a far more lenient standard than limiting P to agronomic needs on P-saturated soils or recommending periods of no P applications in order to draw down soil P levels.   The Guidance acknowledges the imbalance of agricultural nutrients in many of the Bay’s watersheds but does little to deal with the overall imbalance.

On Monday May 11, EPA announced a settlement in Fowler v. EPA,  a case brought in the waning days of the Bush Administration in January 2009.   The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and co-plaintiffs agreed to settle the case, in part because EPA is moving forward with a Clean Water Act Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for the Bay’s impaired watersheds.   Under the TMDL process, the pollution loads of nutrients and sediment in impaired watersheds will assessed and more stringent requirements for pollution control may be imposed on point sources of pollution.

One provision of the Fowler v. EPA settlement requires EPA to propose revisions to strengthen the Clean Water Act’s regulations for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, which are point sources under the Clean Water Act.  These provisions could include increasing the number of animal operations that will qualify as CAFOs, more stringent permitting requirements for the land application of manure, litter and process wastewater, and off-site manure transfer reporting and recordkeeping requirements.   Final action on the CAFO regulation revisions for the Bay watersheds under the TMDL is to be completed by June 30, 2014.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment

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